The preaching of the Cross [No 1 of 3]
Saint Barnabas Downham
15th September 1991
Isaiah 50: 5-9
James 2: 14-18
Mark 8: 27-35
Yesterday, September 14th was the Feast of the Holy Cross. So this morning let me begin, so to speak, at the crossroads.
Crossroads, the place where two roads intersect with each other, suggests the idea of making a choice.
Anyone who is standing at the crossroads can choose to go one of four ways: straight ahead; back on his tracks; to the right, or to the left.
For that matter, I suppose there is a fifth choice which is to stand still and go nowhere. But Christians have generally agreed that going nowhere simply isn't a choice which is open to them.
For the Christian life is a Pilgrim's Progress. And progress literally means a stepping forward – "pro" and "gress".
So whenever he comes to what crossroads, and this will happen many times during every pilgrim's life, the decision will have to be made about which way to follow, and as we saw a moment or two back, not to to decide is itself a form of decision.
Now which way a Christian pilgrim decides to go at any particular crossroads in his life will depend on where he thinks he's going – what end he has in view in other words.
And here you will find two quite different schools of thought around whereas only a few years ago there would only have been one.
Until recently if a Christian was asked "what is the chief end of man?" they would all have replied without hesitation "the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever."
But little by little, and often with the encouragement of their clergy and teachers, this has been displaced by a view which might be summed up in the following words.
"The chief end of man is to find his slot in society and enjoy his life to the full".
Notice two things about these alternative views – a similarity and a difference.
The similarity is that they both include the word Enjoy. In other words the two beliefs agree that the purpose for which man was created, his "Chief End" has the notion of Enjoyment firmly embedded into it.
The difference lies in the fact that the first saying focuses on God – Glorify God and enjoy him for ever; the second concentrates on Man and talks about him enjoying life to the full and fitting in with the world (or finding his slot in it).
Now one thing stands out a mile. You cannot hold both these views at the same time as being the chief end of man.
That isn't to say that you cannot attach importance to fitting in with this world and enjoying life to the full; what we are up against is a question of priorities.
The real choice is which of the two shall take precedence in your life and mine. When it comes to the crunch of making a decision, where the two concepts of glorifying God or fitting in with the world come into conflict with one another, which way shall we choose to follow?
Jesus himself was in no doubt: for him the way ahead was the way of the Cross.
I must qualify that statement that he was in no doubt. There are strong reasons for thinking that he was prone to just the same doubts as we are from time to time.
That is why he gave Saint Peter such short shrift when the latter tried to deflect him from the way of the cross which lay before him. Peter was putting into words all the feelings that were running through Jesus's mind at the time, especially the idea that this year mightn't be the quite the right time to bring matters to a hit with his enemies who was seeking to destroy him.
Was it really his heavenly Father's will that after only three brief years of ministry, with people just beginning to notice what he was telling them, with the apostles just beginning to understand what it was all about, with even foreign Gentiles like the Roman Centurion beginning to become involved; was it really right that he should walk straight into Jerusalem into the lion's den so to speak with all the risks of disaster?
And then as he knelt and prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, what did his prayer consist of? It was "O God, isn't there any other way than this?"
So you see even Jesus himself had to make decisions and often it seems he was tormented with doubts like we are as to which way to follow. "Tempted at all points like we are" says the New Testament writer of Jesus but he adds "yet without sin".
If anyone tells you that being a Christian is "simply a matter of keeping God's commandments" it means they haven't understood the first thing about it.
To begin with it isn't a "simply" anything. It is something which involves offering back to God everything he has given us, body, mind and spirit, to be as St Paul said "a living sacrifice wholly acceptable to God which is your reasonable service".
Secondly it is a matter of following, not a set of commandments, but a person, Jesus Christ. A person who when asked said "If anyone follows me let him deny himself and take up his cross".
For what is the cross but the capital letter I crossed out? That by itself should help to remind us that we cannot have two chief ends. "Not my will but yours, O Father, be done" was how Jesus ended his prayer in Gethsemane. "O God, isn't there any other way than this?"
The preaching of the cross is always foolishness to those who are not pilgrim's on the road which leads us home to God.
In the next two weeks I hope to explore a little further we knew just what the Way of the Cross means in practice.
But this morning's lesson is really quite a simple one to grasp. I don't say that it's in any way easy to put into practice – that's something quite different: but the lesson itself is this:
Man cannot have two Chief Ends in his life: when it comes to the crossroads it's a matter of putting God's will and purposes firmly in the place of our own.
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